Professor Martin Green has set himself a bold task. Tolstoy and Gandhi, Men of Peace1 is the double biography of two extraordinary men, both of whom exerted enormous influence over their contemporaries, combined into what amounts to a single, intertwined “life.” As he explains in his introduction: “The plan of this book is to present the two lives side by side, in all their various phases, in such a way as to reveal the historical forces to which they were always responding.” This results in a succession of parallel phases in which Professor Green detects marked psychological and ideological similarities; he intersperses his discussions of these with expositions of the common ground he finds himself treading.

These parallel periods are of course staggered chronologically, since the lives only partially overlapped. Tolstoy was born in 1828 and died in 1910, while Gandhi was born in 1869 and assassinated in 1948. It goes without saying that the historical overlap is almost wholly marginal. Tolstoy was a Russian, a nobleman, and above all a very great writer. Gandhi was a middle-class Indian, living at a time when his “country” was governed by a tiny minority of Europeans from the other side of the world, and first and foremost a politician. As he wrote, “I myself was born into a family of politicians”; his father was chief minister of a small Gujerati state. There is an unexpected contrast here, for though Tolstoy was a member of the old Russian aristocracy, neither his father nor he took any political office worth mentioning! He lived at a time when many nobles were disenchanted with politics in general, a disenchantment which had a great influence on Tolstoy’s social thinking.

Where Tolstoy and Gandhi strike a common chord is not in their social or racial background or in their most striking personality traits, but in the political and social philosophies they attained after recurring personal crises. Both became pacifists and vegetarians, advocated nonviolent resistance to oppression, and ended by rejecting the achievements of civilized European life in toto. Professor Green labels this stance “anti-imperialism,” which seems a little confusing. Gandhi was a fervent nationalist, while Tolstoy abhorred nationalism. Still, Green’s own definition will make his position clearer:

Tolstoy and Gandhi are the greatest of anti-imperialists precisely because they attacked the sources and roots of empire outside the realm of politics—attacked the very logic of power. These roots include, with varying degrees of importance, almost any kind of cultural triumphalism, or excited grandeur, or dominance and splendor in life. Only a world view that is on principle hostile to all these can be secure against imperialism . . . . Thus the only root of effective anti-imperialism is asceticism. And the only men who, in their time, said no to life with real authority were Tolstoy and Gandhi. 

A renunciation of violence was far from unique to these two figures.

There is no doubt that this is essentially true. A renunciation of violence was far from unique to these two figures, pre-eminent though they were. What made their program remarkable was the eventual rejection of all aspects of civilized life—not only the maxim gun and the dreadnought, but the railway, the telephone, and the tennis racket. Peasant and village life were the norm. Within the clustered ants' nests of city and town, men struggled and clamored for worthless prizes in order to satisfy imaginary needs. But what were these tiny, iridescent specks on the earth’s broad surface compared with the dignified, patient toil of that vast majority of the human race who continued their unchanging existence working with the beasts and crops that perfectly suffice for all man’s true needs?

Tolstoy acknowledged his deep debt to Rousseau, whose works he had devoured as a youth. “I have read the whole of Rousseau,” he remarked once, “all his twenty volumes, including his Dictionary of Music. I was more than enthusiastic about him, I worshipped him. At the age of fifteen I wore a medallion portrait of him next to my body instead of the Orthodox cross. Many of his pages are so akin to me that it seems to me that I must have written them myself.” Like Rousseau, what he rebelled against was not merely the oppression of government—any government—but the unnatural complexity of human relations in modern society. His great novels exalt the spontaneity of elemental human emotions and relationships. What springs from the heart is true, and all great truths are simple ones. Pierre and Natasha, Kutuzov and Karataev, represent the flowing current of existence, which Napoleon and Karenin in their different ways blindly imagine themselves capable of altering to personal or public advantage. Civilization so obfuscates the ingenuous outpouring of the human heart that existence is trapped in an invisible web of artificial constrictions. It is mocked as posturing inanity at Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soirées, and exposed as a sinisterly destructive snare in which Anna Karenina is enmeshed and finally destroyed.

In his novels, Tolstoy created a world in which truth and honesty in human relations are exalted.

In his novels, Tolstoy created a world in which truth and honesty in human relations are exalted. Then came the crisis of his Confession in 1879, when he turned against the role of fiction as enlightenment, seeing it instead as yet another example of society’s insatiable appetite for frivolous entertainment. Henceforward he would devote himself uncompromisingly to the struggle to re-establish that unselfconscious, elemental existence which he had known as a child and which he now identified with the life of the peasantry.

The struggle, as he seems to have anticipated at the end, was a vain one. The peasantry was to be destroyed entirely as an economic class, and in untold numbers as human beings, by the very revolutionary forces Tolstoy’s endeavors unwittingly helped bring to power. The onward march of modern industrial civilization appears on the face of it inexorable, and Tolstoy was no more capable of hindering its advance than was Anna Karenina of stopping the train. Each took the only course consonant with personal integrity, and was destroyed by it.

Gandhi’s view of life was similar in many respects to Tolstoy’s and had indeed been greatly influenced by his writings. He saw nonviolence as the only rational as well as virtuous means of opposing evil, since violent opposition involved surrender to the enemy’s methods and tacitly admitted a lack of conviction in the integrity of the cause. He too eventually turned against almost all manifestations of modern industrial society, partly because it introduced corrupting complications into the fabric of society and also because the more sophisticated machinery threw thousands of home operatives out of work.

For both men the essential was to rid one’s mind of complexity and grasp those eternal verities which are essentially simple. “Truth stands,” wrote Gandhi, “even though there be no public support. It is self-sustained. Truth is perhaps the most important name of God. In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God than to say that God is Truth.” A man who succeeded in making this ideal his way of life could ultimately persuade even his most violent opponents to reconsider their views.

Though each recognized the other’s viewpoint on the issue as virtually identical to his own, Tolstoy and Gandhi had arrived at this position by very different ways. Tolstoy was a man of immensely powerful passions, a nobleman (and proud of it), possessed of vigorous sexual drive, changeable, whimsical, and on occasion given to threats or even acts of violence when opposed. His conversion required almost superhuman control over warring emotions and if erratic was surely the more admirable in consequence. It seems likely that his confidence in the efficacy of nonviolent methods stemmed in part from the virtual immunity he enjoyed from government harassment, an immunity deriving from his prestige as an aristocrat and great writer. Moreover, the government, though generally insensitive and often brutal, was not immune to civilized decencies. Tolstoy wrote stern advice to Alexander III and Nicholas II (“I address you in this letter not so much as a tsar but as a man—a brother”), and his wife was able to call on Alexander III and engage in amicable discussion about the censorship of her husband’s writings. Such rulers and their representatives, benighted as they were, could not be wholly immune to rational argument and Christian example.

In any case, nothing else could possibly work in view of Russia’s bloody past and the violent streak in the Russian character: “even if a change in the existing order were brought about by means of violence,” wrote Tolstoy,

nothing would guarantee that the newly established order would be durable, and that the enemies of this new order would not triumph in favourable circumstances, and by use of the same violence, as has happened over and over again in France and wherever else revolutions have occurred. And therefore the new order of things established by violence would have to be constantly supported by that same violence.

There is a pronounced strain of pessimism running through all this, as if Tolstoy were only too aware how close violence lay to the surface even in his own nature. It could not bring peace, and the nonviolent approach had to work.

Tolstoy became a saint only by exercise of the most daunting self-control. Gandhi seems to have been a saint by nature. As a boy he had been solitary, shy, obedient, and pious. His nature was warm and equable, and he found little difficulty in loving everyone he encountered regardless of his views. Indeed, so great was his love for humanity at large that personal friends were not markedly distinguished in his affections. He might well have been thought a saint in politics, but he himself emphasized that he was in truth a politician who was trying to become a saint. Despite his reductionist social beliefs he did not, as did Tolstoy, turn his back on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Gandhi’s political objectives were on the whole limited and practical, so practical that to a considerable degree they proved successful, both in South Africa and India. That his methods were so effective was due, it must surely be admitted, as much to the nature of his adversaries’ response as to the virtues of his approach.

On the whole the governments in South Africa and India were administered by fair-minded men with a high respect for civilized decencies. Initial contempt for Gandhi as an effete babu changed to grudging regard, as his extraordinary courage and rigid observance of principle under the most cruel provocation became apparent. It was contrary to the code professed by the men who administered the Empire to hit a man who refused to strike back, and who unflinchingly returned gentle remonstrance to brutality. Moreover, Gandhi’s demands did not challenge any non-negotiable view, as Tolstoy’s did. Tolstoy’s program required not merely the dismantling of the Russian Empire but also the surrender of private property, a policy acceptable in practical terms to few, and anathema to many.

Gandhi’s political objectives were on the whole limited and practical.

Gandhi’s limited political demands for Indians in South Africa did not threaten any central bastion of the state, and the ultimate future of British India was a continual subject of debate among the British themselves. Ever resourceful in containing native rebellions (a task congenial enough to dashing young public school men bred for the role), they became shamefacedly indecisive when faced with decent, reasonable demands put firmly by a leader whose personal honor stood as high as their own. It is no reflection on Gandhi’s integrity to suggest that he was politician enough to perceive that his approach was the most effective from a political point of view. How he would ultimately have reacted had he been faced with a government as cruel as that of the Belgians in the Congo or as ruthless as that of the Germans in East Africa we can never know, any more than we can know how Tolstoy would have viewed the pathetic ineffectiveness of passive resistance to Stalin’s war against peasant landholders in the Thirties.

The philosophical outlook of both men bears sufficiently strong identity to deserve a single analysis in depth, and Professor Green’s book provides a valiant attempt to achieve this aim. It is the biographical approach, however, which inevitably appears of questionable validity. There is no escaping the fact that Tolstoy and Gandhi were two very different characters, products of very different societies and social classes, men whose achievements lay in very different fields. They only partially overlapped as contemporaries, and Gandhi’s survival into the middle of the twentieth century is of crucial importance to the nature of his career.

The fact is surely that Tolstoy’s political and social philosophy would be of only marginal interest were it not for his stature as a great author. It was the prestige of his fiction that provided the platform from which his views on social reform could be propagated. Of course, this is not all that makes his later work interesting, and the extraordinary internal turmoil of so towering a character must always be of acute human significance. But the fact remains that, however high their moral and aesthetic value, Tolstoy’s views on pacifism, anarchism, and the like would have very limited interest today were they not the views of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. By the same token, we should remember little enough of Gandhi’s outlook had he not been the principal architect of the overthrow of the British Raj. That Tolstoy and Gandhi were both great and good men is undeniable, but equally so is the fact that Tolstoy was first and foremost a novelist, and Gandhi primarily a politician.

Professor Green appears uneasily aware of this fact, and so strives to place Tolstoy’s literary career in parallel to Gandhi’s political one. This results in a series of extravagantly inappropriate comparisons, which at times become quite absurd. Gandhi’s sailing for England in 1888 (largely for the purpose of becoming qualified as a barrister), for example, is compared with Tolstoy’s homecoming to the countryside in the same year. It would be tediously invidious to list innumerable similar examples, and one further will suffice:

Thus, if Tolstoy married at thirty-four and entered into domesticity as a career and a faith as well as a personal relationship, Gandhi at thirty-seven withdrew from marriage, at least sexually, and to some degree from domesticity. He was henceforth engaged not in public work but in a political crusade. Over this period of his youth, he had gradually committed his life to political activism as completely as Tolstoy had committed his to the art of writing; but from now on, Gandhi’s politics would be boldly nationalistic.

It is difficult to see any purpose or validity in this comparison, or the significance of the coordinating conjunction linking the final clause. Early on in his introduction Professor Green summarizes the parallelism as he sees it, conceding disarmingly that “I have often had to use terms that may seem slightly odd, because they are the only ones that put such disparate phenomena into a single focus.”

Many comparisons are so farfetched as to exclude any sensible purpose in undertaking them. The strain on credulity is at times such as to be quite comical. When Gandhi tentatively undertakes some minor gymnastics in his backyard, Professor Green sees a reminder of Tolstoy’s exceptional physical strength and drive. When Gandhi in London adopts English clothes and brushes his hair, Professor Green at once recalls Tolstoy’s period of aristocratic dandyism at Kazan University.

In defense, it may be said that the style in general often obscures comprehension. Endless breathless parentheses, not always relevant, distract the reader’s attention. Sentences like the following can leave an unwary reader’s brain reeling like a gyroscope:

However, it is most likely that the book made its impact by the way that many of its features, Tolstoy’s face as a whole, met the corresponding features of Gandhi’s mind and sensibility (he read “Ivan Ilych,” which also moved him deeply, at the same time), both sets of features being animated by an intensity of earnestness hardly to be met with in any other men among the millions who stood between Yasnaya Polyana and Pretoria.

Unfortunately it is not only faulty grammar and inappropriate juxtaposition of episodes that detract from the effectiveness of Tolstoy and Gandhi. Factual accuracy is not all that it should be either. Professor Green appears at home in neither the British Empire nor the Russian. References to Kipling miss the mark entirely, as does the epithet WASP when applied to the British governing class. Contrary to the author’s assertion, the “spread of Marxism” in Britain was minimal in 1914, and “imperialism” in the nineteenth century meant something quite different from what our author appears to believe. Still less effective are pronouncements on Tolstoy in the context of Imperial Russia. He entirely misses the involuntary note of sarcasm in Tolstoy’s address to the Czar in 1881 (“I, an insignificant, unqualified, weak, sinful man . . .”), and one questions whether it would have been safe to refer in his presence to the testy old Count’s way of life as “bourgeois.” And what would have been Leo’s reaction to the neat parallel drawn between his illustrious ancestor Count Peter Tolstoy, Ambassador, Senator, and Privy Councillor, and “Gandhi’s grandfather . . . the customs contractor of Porbandar”?

It is hard to criticize adversely a book which is patently the result of enormous industry and enthusiasm (in his introduction, Martin Green explains that the original version was nearly four times as long as the published edition). A photograph on the dustjacket portrays a benevolent figure apparently in the full flow of conducting a seminar at Tufts University. It is not hard to guess that his enthusiasm for his chosen subject is infectious. Unfortunately, the writing of books requires different techniques, and Tolstoy and Gandhi reads too much like the near-verbatim script of a succession of lectures, with its warmth of delivery, continual asides, hazardous speculations, and occasional unreflecting blunders.

Ultimately, however, it is less the treatment which is at fault than the whole conception. Many valid comparisons may be made between Tolstoy’s and Gandhi’s social thinking, which converged at so many important points. But any attempt at integrating two such utterly disparate biographies is doomed to failure. Professor Green would surely have done better, possessed as he clearly is of enormous energy, and enthusiasm, to have written two separate biographies. Better still, as excellent biographies are not lacking, he could have confined himself to one volume on their social teaching.

1Tolstoy and Gandhi, Men of Peace: A Biography, by Martin Green. Basic Books, 319 pages, $23.50.

A Message from the Editors

As a reader of our efforts, you have stood with us on the front lines in the battle for culture. Learn how your support contributes to our continued defense of truth.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 4, on page 67
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now